a couple of disclaimers: 1- spoiler alert for The Fault in Our Stars. 2- again, anytime I write about patients, names are changed according to HIPAA
“…for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
I am done signing sympathy cards. Death, eff you, I don’t want you where I work anymore.
And the beauty of the true narrative is this: death wasn’t the primary intention for man. We willingly chose disobedience so here we are, but it wasn’t God’s first thought for us…after all, the tree of life was (and remains) free for the taking. This death thing was not part of the original picture. This truth purchases for me the right to be angry, to be sad, to curse death…which is becoming increasingly easy for me.
I remember the day I saw that Ian Grey had died. My C.S. Lewis friend, my joy-in-the-everyday patient, he’s gone. Leaving his precious wife Sylvia behind. He was basically a kid in a grown-up’s body. When I picture him, I always see his sparkling eyes and his smiling face. It is strange to me that he has died; he seemed like the type of man who would not die, but just go on living forever and ever, with his white hair and his easy smile. He told me corny jokes, he read my letter about Seattle with the greatest interest, he talked about his grandkids with all the wonder of someone discovering stars for the first time. He asked about my roommate Christina and how she was doing in teaching; I could tell he was a comrade-in-arms to her, though they never met. I’ll miss him, and miss him dearly. I can’t hear that one song* without thinking of him smiling that last day.
And I did not realize it would be the last time I saw him when I was there in clinic that Saturday morning. I had run in at a last-minute request of a friend, hair askew, jeans and t-shirt. He was piled under a coat and several blankets, getting fluids to help bring his blood sugar down and give him some strength. His eyes sparkled then, too.
I did not know it would be my last time to see Amy the day I hugged her before she left for the day… did not know that our brief exchanged pleasantries would be the last words on earth between us. I hugged her mom and cried at the bedside weeks later beside her lifeless body. It sucked.
And I did not know it would be the last time I saw Robert Hall when I peeked in to say hello to him and his wife while he was getting fluids. The next time I saw his wife we were at his visitation.
Damn you, death. Damn you. You have much to teach; I have learned the beauty of life from the tragedy of death. And the verse is not misspoken: “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Solomon too shows himself wise: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” Okay, death, I’ve learned my wisdom. I’m done. I have tasted the bitter cup and seen that yes, knowing death makes us thank God for life, and surely, makes us thank him for life everlasting.
But Ian Grey? He wasn’t supposed to die. None of these people were. I hate you death, hate you more and more every day. Sometimes I feel like you work right alongside me, and I’m ready for you to get fired.
A few weeks ago is when I learned about Robert Hall. It was a Friday night. I drove home, played that same song* I always want to play when my patients die, and cried. Sometimes I can get away with teary eyes, and that’s how it started. I thought of all the patients I have lost, their faces flashing before my eyes like I had just seen them that day.
And I remember a time at church a few months earlier: in the singing, the Spirit gently had reminded me- death may be close at hand, but Christ is closer still. And as I pictured Jesus close, even closer than that vulture death, I began to weep uncontrollably. Sometimes it feels like everyone I love dies.
And it is all right, in his arms, to acknowledge the sorrow and anger. After all, Jesus wept.* Keller says that a literal translation of this verb “wept” indicates that Jesus is angry–“furious at evil, death, and suffering”.1 And so, on this holy Saturday, we are free to both mourn death, and hate it.
And if we listen to the world, and if Holy Saturday is the end of the story— it is all blackness and void. I think of that book I saw at the library, Advice for Future Corpses (and those who love them). I could not read it but I thought it was right- after all, we are, each one of us, “future corpses”.
I read The Fault in Our Stars the next day after I wept (which of course made me cry again), and felt the cold harshness of bereft Hazel Grace’s mind:
“We live in a universe devoted to the creation, and eradication, of awareness. Augustus Waters did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. He died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim–as you will be–of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.”2I try on the glasses of her world for a while, see the death all around, and I cry and cry.